Centaur, an Excellently Bizarre Pinball Table

One of the (very few) great cultural institutions we have here in the Tampa Bay area is the Replay Amusement Museum, a collection of vintage pinball and arcade machines in Tarpon Springs. Pinball is an incredibly fun, invigorating, challenging thing, and a pretty great mental exercise – imagine, there was a time when hitting a ball against spring-loaded bumpers could be an interactive metaphor for everything from piloting a spaceship to rafting a river to exploring a haunted house.

The tables are also often stunning capsules of the creative and cultural environment of their time. They’re collections of art, sound, and language, in their way not unlike a film. There are lots of tables that are weird in various ways, but one of the weirdest has to be the 1981 table Centaur, which has a direct line to the bizarre science fiction and horror that dominated the 1970s and 1980s – and, more generally, to the grim undertones of that era.Centaur

The “story” of the Centaur table – and yes, pinball tables tell stories, sometimes elaborate ones – has the player facing off against a strange creature that’s, apparently, half orc and half motorcycle. The illustrations on the backboard and play surface are all black and white, and the costuming of the characters seems inspired by a mix of Conan/Frank Frazetta and The Road Warrior (which came out the same year, but I’m not sure whether the table came after). The artist, Paul Faris, was then just at the start of an illustrious but undersung career in video game art, which included work on Double Dragon.

The table is lit by almost entirely red bumpers and lights, giving the whole thing a powerful heavy metal vibe.

But what really makes this a pinball game worthy of treatment in a blog dedicated to weird culture is the game’s intimidating, bleak audio. The narration comes from a robotic, granulated voice drenched in reverb (provided by a dedicated sound chip – this was 1981, when this stuff took real work). And the music today sounds like abstract noise, looping and grimy and guttural. On the table at Replay, at least, the bass was so powerful I could feel it through my hands as they rested on the cabinet.

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Phantasm, Wu-Tang, and the Power of Suggestion

Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm is a conundrum. It makes an immediate impression of amateurism, mostly thanks to the naïve style of the untrained actors. That’s reinforced, as the film progresses, by the seemingly random progression of unexplained, though effectively ominous events – a murder in a graveyard, a funeral overseen by a menacing mortician, a sightless medium inexplicably speaking through her apparently psychic (and affectless) teenage granddaughter.

A seasoned aficionado of the weird will, by the middle of Phantasm, feel pretty sure that they’re seeing something like an inferior American version of Suspiria, complete with unexplained murders and mounting signs of a conspiracy, motivations just barely hinted at. Unfortunately, Coscarelli doesn’t have anything like Argento’s visual flair (or that amazing Goblin soundtrack – though Phantasm’s theme weakly echoes Suspiria’s), and the movie’s long setup comes dangerously close to flatness.

But what Coscarelli lacks in painterly excess, he quickly makes up for with a sense of the bizarre that dwarfs Argento’s. Suspiria is memorable for how it looks – Phantasm is memorable for its utterly uncanny events. Argento’s witches would certainly fall into Lovecraft’s category of “old,” unscientific horrors, alongside werewolves and vampires. But the relentless, cosmically inscrutable force at the center of Phantasm – the Tall Man, with his army of horrific dwarves – defies both tradition and categorization, and is all the more menacing because it occupies an apparently human body.

It all comes together in one moment of sublimely realized cosmic horror that holds the movie’s dream-logic together. The young protagonist, in pursuit of the Tall Man, slips through a dimensional portal and glimpses the corpse-dwarves at some utterly opaque form of slave labor, on the surface of a resolutely alien world. The place is desolate – nothing but an expanse of rock all the way to the horizon – and with a red, fiery sky. In the next instant, Mike is snatched back through the portal, and we never see the place again.

It is a total shift in visual tone from the muted aura of the rest of the film. And while the effect of the planet’s surface itself is not exceptionally refined, the fact that we only see it for a matter of seconds leaves it to resonate in our heads, not just for the rest of the movie, but (if you’re of a certain morbid cast) long after.

The moment reminds me, in a strange, oblique way, of the 2000 Wu-Tang Clan track “Careful.” Despite the weirdly blingy video, the track is totally haunting, slow, and sparse. It came out a year after RZA did the transformational “Ghost Dog” soundtrack, and could easily be an outtake.

EXCEPT.

At about the 3:40 mark, as the song is about to end, RZA drops a horn sample that transforms the entire song. It’s a three-note traditional soul/funk hook. It’s beautiful, funky, rich. It gives heart to a track that’s ice cold – but instead of using it to climax the song, or under the hook, RZA laces it in all the way at the end of the song, twice – and then returns to the bare-bones original beat.

It’s a stunning bit of artistic restraint. Every time you remember the song, the loop floats over the whole thing, not just the last few seconds. Every time you listen to the song after that, the loop haunts it.

You’re waiting for it. It hangs on in its own absence.

It’s a strong parallel to Coscarelli’s gesture in Phantasm, and to the brief flashes of revelatory truth that define almost all works of weird horror. The glimpse of the alien planet looks like it might be an explanation of the inexplicable, a source of order, if not security, in the face of seemingly random terror. Coscarelli does offer some logic – but just the barest wisp, ultimately just a further tease to enrich the wanderings of our own brains.

Phantasm is not by any means as rich a mine of illogic as, say, Inland Empire, or El Topo, or Trash Humpers. It’s structured as a traditional horror movie, with a villain, and a hero who overcomes it (at least temporarily). But the nature of that monster – scientific rather than supernatural, and yet at the same time totally inexplicable – makes it an inspiring manifestation of the weird by a determined auteur working without much money, but with a fierce dedication to his own singular ideas.

Fallout 4 is Fundamentally Broken, Thanks to One Huge Writing Mistake.

Note: This was originally written back in December, when this game was actually new. I managed to not actually publish it at the time. Whoops.

 

In the past two years or so, I’ve devoted a lot of energy to studying and practicing plot mechanics. They were a problem for me as a writer for a long time, but I’m finally really getting into the swing of things. It’s with that recently-polished insight that I approached the new Fallout 4, and I’ve found that, as a mechanism for delivering a coherent experience centered around character and plot, it has some serious problems.

I really, really wanted to like Fallout 4. So badly, in fact that I bought a Playstation 4 so I could play it. But now, after having the game for less than a month, and playing for around 40 hours (at least), I feel no urge to continue. In fact, I think continuing to play it would be bad for me – it leaves me feeling empty and drained.

On one level, I shouldn’t be too surprised. I’ve been playing the Fallout games for nearly 20 years (Jesus . . .), and was pretty disappointed with Fallout 3 – it felt lifeless and boring compared to the first two games. And while Fallout 4 shares a lot of problems with Fallout 3 – a combat system that’s no fun, inventory management that’s just a boring hassle, enemies that are boringly samey, and a setting so visually boring it could be used to prep patients for oral surgery – It’s that sense of lifelessness, and even pointlessness, that feels the most familiar.

In other words, the writing sucks.

This is, of course, the same thing a lot of us said about Fallout 3 – and it was mostly true then, too. When Bethesda got the rights to Fallout from Black Isle in the early 2000s, there was a lot of skepticism – the tone of the first two Fallouts was just too different from Bethesda’s heavy Elder Scrolls fantasy RPGs. And for the record, I really loved the writing, including plotting and characters, on Skyrim – that was a game that gave you purpose, and led you through a series of small and large, but always meaningful, goals. The tone was right for the experience (also, Skyrim looks amazing. Fallout 4 looks like someone spilled brown paint).

But Fallout has always been a more human, more mature, and more subtle story than The Elder Scrolls – at its best, both a satire of the worst parts of our own culture, and a meditation on the experience of total loss. But Bethesda never truly picked up those threads from the original Fallout games, with Fallout 3 really feeling like a rote exercise, especially in the humor department – Bethesda don’t seem to get satire.

That continues in Fallout 4, while the story seems even more lackluster (though my memories of Fallout 3 are themselves getting mercifully scant at this point). Moment to moment, the story totally fails to give any meaning to your actions. Critics basing reviews off the first five or ten hours of gameplay seem to have been baited into thinking the exact opposite . . . but before I go there, let me just tell you about a minor quest I just finished up.

While wandering the wasteland, I found the corpse of a soldier, with records suggesting I should find, and maybe help, his fellow squadmates. I traced a handful of distress signals, and ultimately found the sole survivor of the expedition, holed up in a bugout bunker. He offered to let me have any of the junk in his bunker.

And that was it.

There was no final challenge. There was no twist – for example, it didn’t turn out that the survivor had double-crossed his squadmates. There was, in fact, very little payoff at all to give meaning to my play experience (and, just for the record, the ‘play experience’ of this quest, the actual stuff I did, was extremely unremarkable). I didn’t learn much, except that this world is dangerous. I wasn’t clear why these people were conducting a dangerous operation, or why exactly (the most interesting thread) they had to destroy some of their most valuable munitions.

That’s a pretty representative taste of the lost opportunities that abound in the stories here.

The characters are no better, residing mostly in the world of cliché or total nondescription – a guy who wants to help people, a reporter who wants to get the scoop, a super mutant who wants to be . . . stronger, I guess? The most interesting person in Fallout 4 isn’t a person, but a cyborg detective, whose possession of an actual personality almost seems like a satire of how boring all the humans are.

(In fairness, there’s another character, a mercenary, who is interesting. But you literally kill him before you find out he was interesting. You basically get to spend fifteen minutes with him).

But back to that opening sequence. The story of Fallout 4 is set up as an effort to humanize a central character who, in the previous games, was a bit of a blank slate. The setup (and I think this is the same for male and female protagonists, but I might be wrong) has the main character tricked into a state of suspended animation, from which he wakes up just briefly and witnesses his son being kidnapped. When you wake up, you immediately set out to find your son, moving relentlessly towards this crystal-clear goal.

Oh wait, NO YOU DON’T.

This is the thing that makes Fallout 4 seem totally pointless. In the previous games, the first hours were spent discovering the world, understanding your place in it, and answering questions about your own identity. Killing stuff and talking to people was part of that process, giving it all some clear forward momentum.

But in Fallout 4 you know exactly who you are, and exactly what you should be doing – but the larger game doesn’t want you to focus too much on the thing the story has so clearly set up as the most important thing for your character.

For the first thirty hours of the game, while I spent a good bit of effort advancing the main storyline, I was also cajoled by the game into spending a LOT of time on a series of fetch-and-kill missions connected to building a kind of municipal defense network, and a bunch of other peripheral missions that had no apparent connection to finding my son.

What father, in a real or fantasy world, would dawdle around with any of this bullshit after he found out that his son (spoiler alert) had been kidnapped by some kind of evil cyborg gang? When it so constantly encourages you to pursue side-quests that distract from the key goal, the game makes your character feel meaningless and without motivation. If it were true to its own premise, 85% of the content in Fallout 4 would have to be trashed and rewritten, because you’d just be doing the seven or eight quests that led directly to your key goal. But then it wouldn’t be ‘epic,’ I guess.

All of this makes me really suspicious that the whole “kidnapped kid” angle was added at the last minute, or was some sort of political compromise. Bethesda is good at setting up open-ended, open world experiences, where the player feels, in an odd way, motivated to do nothing – at least, nothing specific. In addition to playing the first two Fallouts, I played Daggerfall and Morrowind on release, too – and loved those games on their own terms. (Oblivion is another story).

So, now I’m weighing whether to keep or sell Fallout 4. It’s a boring game. Frankly, the most fun part of it is the new crafting system, which means I have – in another bit of meaning-destroying absurdity the game thrusts on you – probably spent more time improving my guns than trying to rescue a boy that is the only living testament to my beloved dead wife.

Who doesn’t get mentioned one time after the opening sequence, by the way.

David Altmejd is all of you weirdo hipsters’ daddy.

Early last week, I was visiting my brother in Houston, but swung by Austin, where I lived when I was a good bit younger. I bought some records at Waterloo, and then swung by a place I’d never visited before – Farewell Books. For some reason, the Yelp review set off my “awesome shit” spider-sense – and it wasn’t wrong.

Farewell is in the former Domy Books space, and was actually taken over by former Domy employees when that awesome, awesome project wrapped up. It’s now technically four businesses – the bookstore on one side, the equally rad Las Cruxes avant-clothing/jewelry/record shop/gallery on the other, and two I was a little less clear on somewhere in back. I was reminded just how great Austin can be when I ran into the critic George Elkind and, along with Farewell intern Jori (sorry dude, I forgot your last name!) went down several rabbit holes’ worth of conversations about comics, movies – and, finally artists.

I seriously mulled picking up Farewell’s copy of a complete Cremaster compendium book which, at $120, was an absolute steal. But then Jori got me to take a look at a David Altmejd book, and I instantly saw it was the more interesting choice.

Altmejd’s work does everything I so badly want someday to accomplish with my writing. He takes the fantastical and the grotesque and refines it to its absolute peak, making it impossible to say it’s not ‘art’. He is to studio art what Thomas Ligotti or Michael Cisco are to fiction, what Matt Brinkman or Charles Burns are to comics, what Alejandro Jodorowsky is to film, what True Detective Season 1 was to TV. He takes outre, low-brow ideas and formalizes them to a powerful sheen, explores their depths to find what really makes them tick – but without intellectualizing or sucking the life out of them.

I’ve just discovered the guy (shamefully), so I haven’t seen these works in person. But even on the page they are staggering, mind-bending, specific yet visionary. His creatures transcend anything that Tolkien ever cooked up, instead having more in common with the horrific beauty of ’70s extremists like M. John Harrison or Michael Shea (or their godchild, Jeff Vandermeer). These are things that most people aren’t creative enough to cook up even in their wildest nightmares.

He first came to prominence with a series of monster bodies and heads encrusted with crystals, which seemed to grow on them like mold or mushrooms. If you recognize the crystals, you might be a certain sort of witchy hipster, living a realm where the otherworldly has become at least a little bit more relevant. It’s unclear to me whether the chicken or the egg came first (crystal imagery has been around in hipsterworld for a long time), and saying that Altmejd’s work influenced the design of a few tops at Urban Outfitters is pretty insulting anyway.

But more importantly, his work expands on and delves deeper into what those trifles are just barely brushing the surface of – a certain kind of intense wonder, sometimes stomach-turning as much as brain-bending, that we experience in contact with that which is truly, deeply different. Altmejd’s figures are often vaguely humanoid, but nothing about them works according to rules we would recognize – gravity, biology, chemistry.

The fact that they gesture strongly towards the human, of course, makes them all the more astounding when they go a drastically different direction. They open up, turn inside out (both, admittedly, shortcuts to the uncanny), grow things, fall apart. They’re the wrong color, with the wrong affect – most often, none at all.

I’m just getting to now him for the first time, but just as much as Matthew Barney or William Burroughs before them, I can already tell that David Altmejd is sure to be that worst and best of things – an inspiration who is also an intimidation. A fragmentary dream of what I would like to achieve, but maybe never will.

In Unhinged Praise of Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!

Whoo! No blogging for a long time, thanks to a lot of craziness including a cross-country trip that ended with my cat down a well. But I am finally settled down, and with a little more time to do things like, say, pay tribute to my formative influences.

Today, that’s Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!, four choose-your-own-adventure books first released as part of the Fighting Fantasy series. I recently picked up the very awesome Android re-releases. These games are fantastic in the present day, with some great mechanics and minigames.

But more importantly, they’ve reminded me of the huge fascination I used to have with the Sorcery! books. I think I only had two, maybe three of them, but they stuck with me – not because of their adventure format, but because of their tone. In the world of Sorcery!, everything is simultaneously bizarre, depressing, bleak, threatening, and just slightly goofy. In other words, the books were close to the first time I ever actually ran into Dark Fantasy, and by extension, The Weird.

The writing is of course important, and more on that in a second. But what really sets Sorcery! apart is the amazing illustration work by John Blanche. There’s criminally little of his early work online, but here are just a few tastes.

There’s a lot of good John Blanche in this free .PDF version of the Sorcery spellbook.

I don’t have some kind of patent on pointing out that Blanche is a genius. He ended up being art director for Games Workshop for a while, and, as this post puts it, epitomized the ‘dungeon punk’ aesthetic of fantasy in the ’80s. His work has had clear influence on the aesthetics of black metal, board games, and black metal board games.

But that would all come later. For a nine-ten-eleven year old kid, this was context-free mind-bending at its absolute finest. Everything about the world Sorcery! summoned was bizarre, psychedelic, threatening. Moving on from Blanche’s work, there was the narrative itself (I guess written by Steve Jackson? I’m not sure, and don’t care too much). This was a series of kid’s books in which BAD THINGS HAPPENED. People would rob and stab you. The monsters weren’t just powerful, they were devious and gross. Sometimes they acted nice, at first.

Sorcery!, I’m realizing, really wanted me to learn to not trust people (or things). I kind of wish I’d learned that lesson better.

The first three Sorcery! books are now available as Android apps, and I can’t recommend them enough. Even more than the already-impressive books, they really illustrate the huge potential of narrative games. They’re vastly more satisfying than any action-RPG dungeon crawl (fun as those are), and I wish more like them existed.

Pretty Awesome-Looking Conan Board Game Kickstarter Closing

I don’t know if I’m going to drop the bucks on it myself, but this Conan board game Kickstarter seems like a hell of a way to spend $90. I spent a little more than that for the Shadows of Brimstone Kickstarter around this time last year, and got the boxes in December. I’m still working on putting those figures together, and I have to say, they are a huge pain in the butt – I’m not at all impressed by the build quality.

But Conan looks a lot better, and you get a ton of stuff. Soooooo . . . maybe? You’ve got about three days to decide.

On Laughing at Weird Movies

Last night, I went to a screening of Paul Schrader’s 1982 Cat People, at the bar around the street (yes, that kind of thing very occasionally happens in Tampa). I went hoping to stoke my imagination for some plotting on a script I’ve just started working on. I showed up about ten minutes in, and almost immediately, I noticed people were laughing at the movie, which it seemed most of the audience saw as ridiculous and silly.

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Please send promo comics, ‘zines, and weird fiction!

Hey folks, my editors over at Creative Loafing have tasked me with covering a bit more in the way of comics, and I would also like to have more obscure and strange stuff to add to the book coverage I already do for them. If you would like to send material, please email me at dzm@davidzmorris.com and I’ll tell you how (I’m too hated by survivalists and conspiracy theorists to give out my address. Seriously!). If it has monsters, abstract art, no dialogue, wizards, experimental languages, Borgesian mythology, number games, crappy special effects, or is inspired by 1970s sci-fi or extreme Japanese horror, I am definitely interested.

Obviousy I can’t promise coverage, but even things that don’t make the cut over at CL will be good fodder for coverage here on the blog.

Thanks everyone! Please share my email widely.